Hollywood is normally a bustling town. Living in Los Angeles, you’re constantly navigating closed streets and favorite coffee shops closed “for filming.” So common that giant wardrobe trucks and off-duty motorcycle cops don’t make the average Angeleno flinch. But in March 2020, all of that changed when the pandemic decimated the movie industry almost overnight.
While stuck at home with no return date in sight, Ian Smith and Max Ostrove, a director and producer respectively, wondered why the film industry didn’t hop on the work-from-home bandwagon. And could they do something about it? The result was Studiobox, a professional production studio enclosed in a portable case, remotely operated over the internet.
It All Started With a Nosy Husband
Studiobox happened almost by accident. During the pandemic, Ian’s wife conducted interviews for Masterclass over Zoom. Ian, as her only in-person audience, observed her setup and immediately began improving it. But how did that dutiful husband’s eye for filmmaking eventually become a fully-fledged business? That would need the help of friend and visionary, Max, and a sprinkling of magic from a wizard (seriously). But let’s not jump ahead.
Every day, Ian would gather a few items from the garage and bring them back to his wife’s workspace. He couldn’t help himself. “I have a garage full of gear and production equipment, so I started pulling stuff out. Her camera got better. Her lighting got better. She even started using a teleprompter and people were asking her how she memorized all of her lines. She would laugh and let them in on a little secret: ‘My husband’s a director.’”
As his wife’s production value increased, her interviewees, also known as Masters, struggled to match it with their basic laptop setups. Ian could see the split screens as his wife worked and the quality on the other end was shoddy. Pretty soon, Masterclass enlisted Ian for help. Did he have any ideas for drop kits to ramp up production value while working remotely? His first thought: “What the hell is a drop kit?” But he said yes anyway.
Say Yes First, Ask Questions Later
Ian believes that the internet can teach you anything. “If you’re a quick learner and a self-starter, just say yes and figure it out. I started researching drop kits. It’s when companies send a case containing a Macbook Pro, Ring light, and podcast microphone to someone and then spend a few hours on Zoom walking the recipient through how to plug everything in.”
Ian’s good friend, Max, a producer, was also stuck at home. Max was very well-connected in Hollywood and friends in the industry kept asking about how to work in lockdown. Max mostly orbited in the reality TV space and Covid restrictions made filming nearly impossible, but he knew Ian was working on the Masterclass drop kit. “I’m getting hit up left and right,” Max said. “Let’s make this way bigger and offer drop kits as a business.” Max and Ian combined their talents and called their venture Studiobox.
Max isn’t your average producer. He’s also a hobby metal worker and furniture builder. He had a garage full of power tools so the two could start constructing a prototype immediately. Since neither founder had been working because of the pandemic, they bought additional equipment using credit cards. “It was a pandemic and we were scared to spend money because we were trying to save money. And then all of a sudden, here we were, spending tens of thousands of dollars.”
The founders wanted to ship equipment fully operable right out of the box. They spent six months on research and development in their combined garages and thankfully no one filed a noise ordinance. Max explains: “What if we could connect everything? We wanted to make it as easy as possible for our customers. The computer already talks to the camera, lights, and microphones.”
It’s one thing to conceptualize a box but quite another to execute. “How do we build this into a unit that doesn’t need to be assembled by our customers? We wanted to remove two to three hours of prep so that the customer simply has to receive the kit and plug and play. That’s it.” It was a novel idea, but would it work?
The Perfectionist Meets the Realist
The founders’ skills complemented one another. Ian was the perfectionist who didn’t want to ship the product until it was perfect. But Max wanted to just go for it and let the product evolve, and in the end, didn’t give Ian a chance to say no. The first official Studiobox customer was a TV studio in New York. And unfortunately, the drop kit showed up in a jumbled mess.
“It was bad. Things had come unplugged and it was nowhere close to plug and play.” This was exactly what the founders were hoping to avoid, and they were mortified. “I got on a zoom with a technical guy on the other end. I had to walk him through plugging everything back in – this was the same thing we were trying not to do,” Ian says.
Thankfully, the client was understanding. But as soon as Ian got off the phone, he headed straight into the garage to rethink the design. “The first one had a power strip at the bottom with all of the plugs attached and duct-taped closed.” When the client returned the drop kit, Ian called in reinforcements: “Do we know any electrical engineers? We need to wire this thing up.”
Enter The Wizard
The founders were so close – they had the right equipment and could control it remotely. They just had to ensure the drop kits arrived in one piece with everything plugged in. If they could hardwire everything, the cofounders argued, it would solve their problems. Max called in a favor from “The Wizard,” a friend who’d built Burning Man camps with him. He’s also an effects specialist and has worked on several high-profile productions like The Mandalorian. As soon as the Wizard arrived, he knew exactly what to do. Ian and Max built the next version of the Drop Kit in The Wizard’s garage (which put both of their garages to shame!).
With DropKit version 2.0, the founders were ready to roll, but they had to find customers. Ian used his directorial skills to record a one-minute how-to video of what they’d built. They posted the video on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram. They got 5,000 views in 24 hours, and people contacted them to inquire about renting boxes.
The cofounders also attended a trade show with a mockup of their new and improved Studiobox. The response was overwhelming: “People want these boxes, and they want to control them themselves. People were crowding around the display. It was just a crude demo and people were eager to push, click, and get their hands dirty. We realized we needed to move much faster. That lit a fire under our butts.”
Studiobox pricing differs depending on the scope of work. One early customer was a reporter that needed to interview ten people in ten different states. Another was directing a PSA for Black History Month, which meant Ian and Max shipped boxes to congressional offices.
Does the Model Work Post-Pandemic?
Now that restrictions have been lifted in the film industry, what does that mean for Studiobox? Ian and Max aren’t worried. It’s very cost-prohibitive to fly a crew. Shipping a box is much cheaper than airfares, food, and hotels. But the founders know they need to think ahead.
They’re currently working with engineers to build software that will allow customers to operate their drop kits without any technical help from Studiobox. “Currently, when someone hires us, they are also hiring our operators who then get assigned to their shoot and run their shoot for them wherever they are in the world.”
But that model isn’t scalable without a big support staff. “We want to remove the production company element and operator to scale,” Max says. “The goal is to create software that would make it as easy for someone with no training to operate one of these boxes.”
As the world opened back up, it gave Ian and Max a chance to reflect on how far Studiobox has grown. The business grew fast in its first year, and word-of-mouth referrals continued to attract a steady flow of customers. But as crews returned to work, fewer companies had the budgets to pay for Studiobox and previously furloughed employees. Cutting-edge technology, however, would always be in demand.
Ian thinks back to when he first said yes to drop kits without having the faintest idea what they were. It’s that same mix of confidence and bravado that’s taking the founders through Studiobox’s next iteration. “This has been the most rapid accumulation of new skills ever. Since launching Studiobox, we’re both learning so much, so quickly.”
Orson Welles would be proud.
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